Marion and I began our three-week sojourn in Cuba with a one-week stay at the Tuxpan in Varadero, a Soviet-styled block building fronting a beautiful sandy beach and an expansive swimming pool. The price was right: Canadian tour operators offer all-inclusives that provide the inexpensive packages and offer tours outside Varadaro.
After a week in Varadaro, we were off to Havana. The first thing we noticed was the fleet of antique cars. Travellers find them charming, but for Cubans, they are a source of pulmonary diseases.
A metropolis of 2.4 million, Havana has outstanding architecture, some of which is being restored to pre-revolutionary days. In Vedado, Old Havana and San Ignacio, large sums of outside money have revitalized these UNESCO heritage locales.
From Havana we set off by bus to Camaguey, a world heritage site with a network of streets designed to confuse intruding pirates. From there, we made our way to Santa Clara, the site of Che Guevara’s mausoleum and museum.
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We travelled by taxi from Santa Clara through the scenic Escambray Mountains, the rutted road making it impassible for buses, and reached colonial Trinidad, another UNESCO site. Mainly cobblestone, this charming town is 20 minutes from the beach resorts on Playa Ancon. Trinidad is home to the most rousing “son” music and salsa dancers, and this ongoing feast happens at free venues throughout the city.
Cienfuegos was the last stop. Dubbed the “Pearl of the South,” it is located along the south coast of Cuba and is one of its chief seaports. There is a beach in Cienfuegos attached to an all-inclusive hotel. Since December, Toronto-based Cuba Cruise has launched a week-long voyage around the island leaving from Havana or Montego Bay on its 33-year-old, 1,200 passenger Louis Cristal ship. The line boasts that its cuisine is made from food delivered fresh from Canada.
Most meals at state-run hotels and restaurants consist of fish, pork, or beef with little for vegetarians. The best bet is to partake of a meal at a paladar, a small, private restaurant run by Cubans who take a great deal of pride in the meals they serve and the environments they design. We discovered one on an evening stroll in Vedado.
The Bedouin Tent offers excellent tagines and salads. On this night, six girls belly-danced for more than an hour. Full-course meals and entrees came to $30 a person.
A Cuban-style B&B provides a solution for your budget. Families rent one or two rooms in their homes to travelers at very modest rates, paying a tax for each room they rent. In Havana, we paid $30 a night, while outside the metropolis $25 was the rule. For an additional $5 a person, we were treated to a tasty and filling breakfast of omelet, fruit, juice, cheese, coffee and toast. Casa particulars provide home-cooked suppers and you can choose your own menu for an additional fee.
We discovered an unusual way of traveling between cities: by taxi. They are faster and more interesting than the national bus company Azul.
Strike up a deal at the bus terminals or along main thoroughfares, and you won’t be disappointed. Unlike a bus, they pick up and deliver. The taxi will probably pick up one or two other passengers and you will spend a convivial few hours hearing about life in Croatia, Sweden, France, Germany and elsewhere.
Booking accommodations inside Cuba is daunting. Visitors should make as many arrangements as possible from Canada. The Internet is at its infancy in Cuba, with access reserved for state businesses, hotels and a few casa particulars.
Doctors have access to email but not the World Wide Web.
Finally, Cuba is a safe destination. Marion and I enjoyed walking for hours and conversing with people we encountered.
There was not one instance when we were apprehensive. Firearms are illegal in Cuba and even the street police carry no guns. Cuba has no drug problem. Do avoid changing money on the street, as Cubans aren’t above giving you Cuban pesos (25 to $1) instead of Convertible Pesos, a few cents more than the Canadian dollar.